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Juvenile lifers to get chance for resentencing?

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments on whether its 2012 ban on life imprisonment for juveniles should apply to earlier cases; their ruling will affect nearly 500 juvenile lifers in Pennsylvania.

Stacey Torrance in 2003, with niece Alexis and nephew Zuri at the State Correctional Institution in Chester, where he is serving life. (FILE PHOTO)
Stacey Torrance in 2003, with niece Alexis and nephew Zuri at the State Correctional Institution in Chester, where he is serving life. (FILE PHOTO)Read more

THE CONVICTED killers who left Philadelphia for a life behind bars as teenagers are as different as the details of their crimes.

They're people like Kevin Brinkley, arrested at age 15 in a 1977 slaying in Strawberry Mansion that his family always insisted his younger brother committed; Eddie Batzig and brothers Nicholas and Domenic Coia, then ages 16 and 17, who beat a teen friend to death in 2003 in Fishtown and celebrated afterward with a group hug; and Stacey Torrance, who at 14 lured a friend to a North Philly street corner in 1988 to be robbed - but got sent away for murder when his older cousin took the robbery victim elsewhere and killed him.

But in each case, the same fierce hope for freedom has been burning brighter every year. The U.S. Supreme Court has made a series of decisions - from banning the death penalty for juveniles in 2005 to ending mandatory life-without-parole sentences for minors in 2012 - that harsh criminal sentences for juveniles violate the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

And it's with the same intensity that more than 500 juvenile lifers still behind bars in Pennsylvania - the most in the world - will await news tomorrow from the U.S. Supreme Court, where justices will hear oral arguments in a case that could grant all of them new sentencing hearings.

The arguments stem from the Supreme Court's landmark 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama, in which the justices banned mandatory life imprisonment for juveniles, even in the most horrific crimes. Juveniles, they reasoned, lack the maturity, impulse control and judgment that comes with adulthood, and have a greater capacity for reform, and shouldn't face adult penalties.

But they left the question of whether their ruling could be applied retroactively to give new sentencing hearings to juveniles already jailed for life.

Pennsylvania and five other states - Louisiana, Alabama, Colorado, Michigan and Minnesota - have said "no," ruling against sentencing reconsideration.

But the high-court justices have agreed to hear arguments tomorrow on the retroactivity question in Montgomery v. Louisiana. In that case, Henry Montgomery was sentenced to life without parole for killing a police officer in 1963 at age 17.

"It's an issue of fundamental fairness and logic," said Marsha Levick, deputy director and co-founder of Philly's Juvenile Law Center. Levick is co-counsel in Montgomery's case, so she'll be at the Supreme Court hearing.

"If a court rules it unconstitutional for everyone serving that sentence, it [constitutionality] shouldn't turn on the date on which they were convicted," she added.

A decision isn't expected for months. It will affect more than 2,500 lifers in U.S. prisons who were children when they committed the crimes that condemned them.

Torrance, in a letter to the Daily News from the State Correctional Institution at Chester, wrote that he has been in prison for 27 years - since he was 14 years old.

The retroactivity issue is especially urgent for juvenile lifers like Torrance, who was convicted of second-degree murder. Pennsylvania lawmakers in 2012 changed the mandatory sentence for second-degree murder to 20 years to life for offenders who were younger than 15 at the time of the crime and 30 years to life for those 15 to 17. Juvenile lifers like Torrance who have passed those minimums "are serving an illegal sentence," Torrance wrote.

"No matter how dim the light seemed, at times, I never gave up hope that one day I would walk out of the D.O.C.'s [Department of Corrections] doors with a new lease on life," wrote Torrance, now 41. "Although I didn't envision the matter being as prolonged as it has been - over three years thus far - my hope has not diminished. I remain patient."

On Twitter: @DanaDiFilippo